Still from 1988's "The Lair of the White Worm."

 The Lair of the White Worm March 14, 2018  


Ken Russell



Amanda Donohoe

Hugh Grant

Catherine Oxenberg

Peter Capaldi

Sammi Davis

Stratford Johns

Paul Brooke









1 Hr., 33 Mins.

ho exactly is Lady Sylvia (Amanda Donohoe)? She always seems to be appearing in a puff of smoke, part Cobra Woman and part Dovima. So ethereal is she that we’d hardly be surprised if she simply appeared on Earth one day in some sort of pink bubble. She wears high fashions a little too early Jean-Paul Gaultier to make her seem like the approachable brand of aristocratic; she speaks with a bit too much Shakespearean grandeur. She’s like an alien in a vintage Vogue spread who only recently learned how to act like a human. Something’s off. All she does is slink about the area


seductively and quietly, as if there’s nothing else to do in her life besides show up randomly, look hot, and coo come-ons.


She’s certainly a fish out of water in the film in which she serves as the antagonist, The Lair of the White Worm (1988): the feature is set in a tiny town on the English countryside, where the inhabitants are kind of dowdy and where prospects are nil. Then we learn something about this enigmatic Lady Sylvia that makes her being there make a hell of a lot more sense.


The town in which she lives is known for being the site of a much-discussed urban legend. Apparently, a mythical creature called the d’Ampton worm used to roam the premises some centuries ago, gobbling up any passerby who’d so much as cross its path. Fatefully, it was slain in the nearby Stonerich Cavern by the lionhearted local John d’Ampton. But some say the creature might have survived the attack, and that it just might be planning its return down in the deepest cracks of the cave.


Many things are clear in The Lair of the White Worm. One is that this worm certainly is alive, and is planning its comeback. But another is that this Lady Sylvia is not some well-dressed weirdo who makes the edges of town exciting: she actually is, unbeknownst to townsfolk who think she’s a minxy if odd bachelorette, the immortal high priestess to this worm, whom I guess is a snake god. For years has she manipulated young men and women and led them right into the mouths of the title white worm, licking her serpentine lips every step of the way.


Unfortunately for this mannered villainess, however, the movie supporting her is a B-horror show revolving around the end of her and her venomous boss’s reign. It finds its protagonist in the bespectacled archeology student Angus (Peter Capaldi), who discovers a snake skull while excavating the site of a convent by a bed and breakfast run by a pair of charming sisters, Mary and Catherine (Sammi Davis and Catherine Oxenberg). This leads him – as well as the girls and d’Ampton’s young ancestor, James (Hugh Grant) – to the previously mentioned urban legend. Then to Lady Sylvia and then, ahem, the eponymous white worm.


What comes out of the woodwork is a rather run-of-the-mill creature feature made slightly more interesting than most genre exercises for a handful of reasons. One bit of intrigue comes from its being written and directed by the dependable oddball Ken Russell, who makes sure plenty Lynchian psychedelia’s inserted to disrupt all the post-Hammer theatricality. Another stems from Donohoe’s performance, which is by turns strange, sensual, and scary.


But “slightly” should be emphasized. Just because a couple artistic and performative curiosities are in place doesn’t mean that The Lair of the White Worm is anything special. It’s fun and nicely grotesque, sure. But at the end of the day, it’s still a rather tired take on what made Them! (1954) and even Eight Legged Freaks (2001) so agreeable. C